DR Congo: Crackdown on Presidential Aspirant

By Human Rights Watch (HRW)

Authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo have arrested at least 27 associates of Moise Katumbi, a presidential aspirant, and other opposition party members since late April 2016, Human Rights Watch said today. Congo's justice minister announced an investigation into Katumbi on May 4, the day he announced his candidacy.

The arrests occurred between April 22 and May 7 in and around the southern city of Lubumbashi, where Katumbi is based. The investigation into Katumbi for his alleged “recruitment of mercenaries, [including] several retired American soldiers,” appears politically motivated, Human Rights Watch said. On May 7 the prosecutor's office in Lubumbashi summoned Katumbi to appear on May 9.

“The arrests and attacks in Lubumbashi appear to be more than just the usual police harassment, but targeted actions against a presidential aspirant and close supporters,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should urgently reverse course and ensure that opposition parties and all Congolese are freely able to express their views and peacefully assemble.”

On April 24, police fired teargas at Katumbi and a large crowd of peaceful demonstrators in Lubumbashi to block an opposition rally at which Katumbi was to speak. Two opposition party headquarters in Lubumbashi were recently vandalized.

Congo's communications minister Lambert Mende told Radio France Internationale (RFI) on April 25 that “the police used teargas to disperse people who wanted to block traffic [on the roads in Lubumbashi]. There were some administrative arrests,” he added. “But without significant consequences, in my opinion.”

The recent developments in Lubumbashi come in the context of a broader crackdown against activists, opposition party members and others who have urged that presidential elections be organized according to the constitutional timetable, Human Rights Watch said.

Political parties organized public meetings in cities across Congo on April 24 to commemorate the country's multiparty democratization process, which began 26 years ago. The opposition also sought to use the meetings to protest attempts to extend President Joseph Kabila's stay in power beyond his constitutionally mandated two-term limit, which ends on December 19. The meetings in Kinshasa, the capital, and the eastern cities of Goma and Bukavu proceeded peacefully.

A similar meeting in Lubumbashi had been organized by the G7, a platform of seven political parties dismissed from President Kabila's majority coalition in September 2015 after publicly calling on the president to organize presidential elections on time and support a successor. On March 30, the G7 announced their support for Katumbi as a presidential candidate. The former governor of Katanga province, Katumbi defected from Kabila's political party in September to join the opposition.

Early in the morning on April 24, police deployed heavily throughout Lubumbashi's neighborhood known as the Kenya commune, where the political meeting was to take place. Police searched all vehicles and passengers entering the neighborhood and blocked a number of streets.

After learning he would not be able to enter the neighborhood by vehicle, Katumbi entered on foot, avoiding the police barriers. A crowd of supporters accompanied him as he walked the several kilometers toward the Kenya stadium, the planned meeting site. As they neared the stadium, police began firing teargas toward Katumbi and the crowd around him, preventing the meeting from taking place.

Police and Republican Guard soldiers also blocked a team of human rights observers and security officers from the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUSCO, from entering the Kenya commune that morning. They were only able to enter toward the end of the day, by going around the police barriers.

In Lubumbashi during the days leading up to and following the scheduled public meeting, security forces arrested Katumbi's former cabinet director; 6 of Katumbi's employees; 2 sons of a G7 opposition leader, Pierre Lumbi, and 3 of their business employees; at least 10 opposition party members and others who had come out to participate in the scheduled public meeting; one of Katumbi's former security guards; and 4 human rights activists who were observing as security forces searched Katumbi's farm without a warrant. Sixteen of these have since been released, while 11 remain in detention. Human Rights Watch has received reports of additional arrests of those close to Katumbi that it is seeking to confirm.

Opposition party headquarters in Lubumbashi were attacked before and since the planned meeting. Police vandalized the headquarters of the National Union of Federalists of Congo (Union Nationale des fédéralistes duCongo, UNAFEC), one of the G7 members, in Lubumbashi on April 19 and 20 and have kept it shut under police guard. On April 26, unidentified assailants set fire to the Lubumbashi headquarters of another G7 party member, National Union of Federalist Democrats (Union Nationale des Démocrates Féderalistes, UNADEF).

After the justice minister's announcement of the investigation into Katumbi on May 4, there were reports that Katumbi might be arrested or taken in for questioning. Three Congolese human rights activists went to Katumbi's house on the morning of May 5 to monitor the situation from outside. They told Human Rights Watch that about a dozen vehicles with suspected National Intelligence Agency (Agence nationale de renseignements, ANR) and other security force officials, most in civilian clothes, were deployed along the avenue in front of Katumbi's home. At about 3 p.m., an ANR official told the activists, “We know you very well, you work against the nation and you're spying on our agents.” He then added, “We're on an official mission, and we order you to leave the 'sector' immediately and not to come back.” The activists then left the area.

These recent incidents highlight the importance of MONUSCO increasing its military and police presence in Lubumbashi, a political hotspot where there is currently a minimal UN presence. MONUSCO should fully implement its mandate to protect all those at risk from political violence and threats in the area, Human Rights Watch said.

Over the past year and a half, government officials and security forces have arrested dozens of opposition leaders and activists, fired on peaceful protesters, banned demonstrations organized by the opposition, shut down media outlets close to the opposition, intimidated and threatened those who have considered joining the opposition, and prevented opposition leaders from moving freely around the country. In numerous recent cases, the justice system and other state institutions — including the ANR, police, and Republican Guard — have acted in a partisan manner on behalf of the government, Human Rights Watch said.

Preparations for presidential elections have stalled, and many senior government officials and members of Kabila's ruling coalition have said that elections cannot be held before the end of the year. They have called for a national dialogue to discuss the way forward. Many of the main opposition parties have refused to participate in the dialogue, citing fears it is merely a ploy for Kabila to stay in power.

“Arresting those close to opposition leaders, vandalizing their party offices, and using teargas to disrupt peaceful demonstrations sends a frightening message about future election security,” Bekele said. “Government officials should get serious about their calls for dialogue by creating a climate of confidence and ending the campaign of harassment and violence.”